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“Nobody feels it’s equal”: how Israel’s second lockdown is widening the religious-secular divide

A lack of agreement over new Covid-19 restrictions indicates a lack of trust in the nation’s government.

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Having been one of the first countries to impose a second national lockdown, Israel has announced further restrictions today, after the country's health ministry reported a record level of almost 7,000 new cases of Covid-19 the previous day. Rules over access to synagogues and the freedom to protest – both highly contentious areas – will be tightened under the new rules, which are set to be approved by parliament this evening.

Under the previous restrictions that came into force on Friday 18 September, activities important to ultra-Orthodox Jews were allowed despite the more general limits on everyday activities – much to the chagrin of secular Israelis. Visiting the mikveh, the ritual bath for Jewish women, was permitted but swimming was not. Restaurants and cafes were closed, but synagogues were open – albeit under limitations. Protests, a hot-button issue given the many months of mass demonstrations against Prime Minister Netanyahu, were also permitted.  

But following this week’s bitter debates in the Knesset parliament over the issues of prayer and protest, new, tighter rules will come into force tomorrow. Synagogue worship will still be allowed, but synagogues would be closed in the lead-up to Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, next week. Yom Kippur services will take place outside, with worshippers limited to small groups inside a synagogue. 

And when it comes to protests, Israelis now will only be able to demonstrate within a kilometre of their home. For both worship and demonstration, the rules require people to gather in small groups and observe social distancing.

The extended wrangling over these two sets of restrictions points to the long-running tensions between secular and religious Israel. Some 45 per cent of Israeli Jews identify as secular, while around 12 per cent of Israelis are ultra-Orthodox. According to Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, Covid-19 “magnifies” the already fraught relationship between the ultra-Orthodox minority and the secular majority over issues such as education, women’s rights, and the Israeli army draft.

Hoffman, a long-time advocate against ultra-Orthodox control of prayer spaces as a founding member of the Women of the Wall group, believes Israel is witnessing a “backlash” against the central role of the ultra-Orthodox minority in Israeli politics. The two parties that represent the ultra-Orthodox community, Shas and United Torah Judaism, have long been key coalition partners for governments, on the right and left. “The feeling among the seculars," she told me before this week's lockdown rules were imposed, "is that the lockdown is on secular activities.”

The lead-up to a national lockdown tells part of this story. Ronni Gamzu, who was appointed in July to get Israel’s pandemic response back on track, planned a “traffic light” system in which “red” towns with high coronavirus levels would face stricter restrictions than “green” towns. The logic, as in other countries, was that this would avoid a national lockdown while taking aim at Covid-19 spikes. However, many of the towns designated as “red” had ultra-Orthodox or Arab populations. Following pressure from mayors of ultra-Orthodox towns, the plan was dropped this month. It was followed by other attempts at curbing Covid-19 in red towns, such as imposing an (ineffective) nightly curfew.

Responses from parts of the political spectrum to the dropped traffic-light plan reflected wider tensions. Tamar Zandberg, chairwoman of left-wing party Meretz, described the move as a “surrender to the ultra-Orthodox”, adding – in reference to the ongoing criminal proceedings against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – that “Netanyahu needs this alliance [with the ultra-Orthodox parties] to gain immunity from justice, and we will all pay the price in health and life.”

[See also: Can the Israeli left reinvent itself?]

Criticism of ultra-Orthodox conduct over coronavirus has been evident throughout the pandemic. In April, for instance, Channel 12 news anchor Rina Matzliach was lambasted in some quarters for her on-air comments about the Orthodox community’s relationship to the state: “It cannot continue that the ultra-Orthodox feel the state’s authority doesn’t apply to them.”

But according to Gilad Malach, director of the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel Programme at the Israel Democracy Institute, “from the ultra-Orthodox point of view, the picture is totally the opposite”. Not only does the community feel demonised over its high coronavirus levels, but people are losing faith in their political leaders over this issue. Recent polling Malach carried out shows growing distrust in Haredi politicians. The perception, he wrote last month, is that they “did not advocate vigorously enough on behalf of the interests of the ultra-Orthodox public, and insist that synagogues and yeshivas remain open.”

The long-running protests against Prime Minister Netanyahu have also been a sore point for the ultra-Orthodox community. On Saturday some 20,000 Israelis protested outside the Prime Minister’s residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street.“They are reporting all the time about demonstrations, that anybody can go to do a demonstration, and thousands of people are gathering, and why can't we gather in our synagogue, because for us prayer is much more important than demonstration?” Malach says.

On Sunday, an editorial on the ultra-Orthodox website, Hadrei Haredim, responded to rumours that the government would indeed tighten restrictions further, and even close synagogues on Yom Kippur.  “These lines are written out of a storm of emotions, in shock and astonishment and with tears of sadness. About the last half a year, about all the persecution and abuse against the ultra-Orthodox sector”. Is it possible, the editorial asked “to trade [synagogue worship on Yom Kippur] for the political benefit of the prime minister – synagogues in exchange for protests?”

[See also: How Israel’s violent protests risk going beyond Covid-19 unrest]

Another example of these differing viewpoints was over the annual pilgrimage to the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in Uman, Ukraine, a journey which tens of thousands of Hasidic Jews make every new year. This year, given the pandemic, travel to Uman was limited and the Israeli and Ukrainian authorities urged pilgrims not to travel. Despite the warnings, hundreds if not thousands of people made the journey to the Ukrainian border, where they waited to be let in and refused to travel back to Israel. The ultra-Orthodox community was frustrated that more had not been done to enable them to travel, while many other Israelis were frustrated that so many had managed to go.

Coronavirus infection rates among ultra-Orthodox Jews have been high throughout the pandemic. According to Malach’s calculations, by June some 50 per cent of Israelis diagnosed with Covid-19 were from that community. With a high proportion of ultra-Orthodox Jews live below the poverty line – 42 per cent according to 2018 figures – they are likely to be hit hard by the economic crisis, too.

After the first wave, the insular community was in shock, Malach says, adding that there was self-criticism and awareness of needing to be more connected to Israeli society. In fact, internet use among the community has increased during the pandemic. But now, he adds, ultra-Orthodox Israelis expect their politicians to "protect this minority from the majority, not to connect it" to wider society.

A poll conducted in July by Hiddush, an organisation that advocates for religious freedom and pluralism, however, found that 70 per cent of Israelis rejected the idea that criticism of ultra-Orthodox conduct throughout the pandemic comes from bigotry.

This suggests that, beyond long-running tensions over the separation of religion and state, divisions over lockdown restrictions point to the lack of trust in Israel’s government - which is key to dealing with the coronavirus crisis.

Israel was lauded at first for its efficient pandemic response, but the country now has one of the world’s highest coronavirus rates per capita. ​The national Covid-19 death toll stands at 1,325, according to John Hopkins University data. Meanwhile, infection rates continue to rise. This week, police handed out more than 13,000 fines for non-compliance. 

The basic expectation people have of their government is that it will treat people equally, says Malach. "You can ask me who is right, but it doesn't matter – the fact is that nobody feels it's equal."

Alona Ferber is Special Projects Editor at the New Statesman.

Why Harold Evans will be remembered for his flair and courage

The late Sunday Times editor was a relentless foe of abuse of power and injustice. 

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The death of Harold Evans, aged 92, will leave a gaping hole in the life of any journalist who worked for him (as I did for four years) and of many who never met him. The flair and courage of his campaigns made him internationally renowned. He edited the Sunday Times from 1967 to 1981 when, under a benign proprietor, the paper had seemingly unlimited funds and unrestrained licence to embarrass power and privilege. Evans didn’t take up a cause for a few weeks and then drop it lest readers become bored. He pursued abuse of power and injustice relentlessly, sometimes over several years. 

His most famous victory came in the 1970s and won compensation for children born with missing limbs after their mothers took the Thalidomide drug during pregnancy. Distillers, the manufacturers, used court injunctions to prevent the paper publishing the full story. It took six years and the European Court of Human Rights to remove all restraints on publication. The British government was forced to change the law on contempt of court. Other long-running campaigns concerned the 1972 Bloody Sunday killings in Northern Ireland and the design flaws that, in 1974, led to a DC-10 crash in France, killing 346. 

Evans had four great strengths as an editor. First, a genius for presentation, layout and use of pictures, then rare among editors of upmarket papers. His five-volume Editing and Design, written while he was in the Sunday Times chair, became a sacred text for journalists across the world. Second, a grasp, surprisingly unusual among journalists, of narrative structure (in other words, telling a story) which shows in his two volumes of memoirs, Good Times, Bad Times (1983) and My Paper Chase (2009). Third, a sense of show business: he understood how Sunday newspapers had to make noise and, while reporting the arcane detail of, for example, drugs manufacturing or aircraft design, must entertain readers and engage their sympathies for the victims of negligence, secrecy and incompetence. Fourth, he commanded loyalty, even love, among staff. Irreverent, unpompous and perpetually curious, he seemed to embody the spirit of the 1960s. He did not, as he later admitted with a tinge of regret, frighten anybody. He led with an almost boyish enthusiasm.   

But he was also chronically indecisive, often dithering over stories and page layouts as the presses were ready to roll. He lacked firm opinions on most subjects, so leaders often lacked clarity and force. His recruitment policies were promiscuous. As the late Philip Knightley, a Sunday Times star of the Evans era, recalled, he hired “at parties, in lifts, in pubs, at his club and on the squash court”. The paper employed at least twice as many journalists as it needed, some almost forgotten in its warren of offices. 

These flaws became more apparent when, in 1981, Rupert Murdoch, immediately after taking over the Times and Sunday Times, moved Evans to the daily paper. Many established staff resented Evans’s sometimes sneering attitude to the Times’s traditions which put considered judgment above dramatic impact. Though under his editorship the paper won awards, Murdoch ousted him after a year. Missed print deadlines, uncontrolled spending and a staff revolt against what the paper’s official history described as “a state of perpetual revolution” were said to have forced Murdoch to act. 

Evans’s supporters thought Murdoch set him up for failure, moving him from his Sunday Times power base with the aim of dispensing with his services as soon as he could decently do so. Evans, Murdoch feared, would be insufficiently friendly to Margaret Thatcher’s government, which had bent the law to allow him, the owner of the Sun and News of the World, to gobble two more papers. Murdoch looked for further favours as he moved into broadcast media. Besides, Evans, the right editor for the iconoclastic 1960s, was wrong for the 1980s. In both judgments, Murdoch was probably right. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

Rishi Sunak’s uncertain cocktail of measures leaves the UK facing a cruel autumn

The government is divided over whether the Covid-19 crisis is something to be lived with or to be lived through.

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Coronavirus is a new era we have to adapt to, rather than a moment we can live through, is the implicit argument of the measures announced by Rishi Sunak today. A variety of old and new credit schemes for businesses have been unveiled, along with news that the furlough scheme will be replaced by a new programme that will mean pay cuts for many people and job losses for many more.

Under the plans, people working at least a third of their pre-Covid-19 hours will have their pay topped up to up to 77 per cent of their previous monthly wage, with the government covering up to a third of their salary for the hours not worked and businesses paying up to a third more. That means that even in the ideal scenario, workers in the hospitality industry are facing a 23 per cent pay cut – with some losing out on significantly more.

The picture is bleaker still for people employed in industries that cannot function in the era of social distancing. Workers in music, theatre, events and aviation, who are unlikely to get close to working 33 per cent of their pre-coronavirus hours, are facing redundancies and layoffs.

As such, it may be that the story behind Sunak’s decision to delay the announcement of these measures until after the legal cut-off point for big businesses to consult over redundancies is not, as Labour wants to argue, because he has been “slow”, but because he wants to obscure that these measures are not going to prevent an autumn of significant job losses.

As I’ve written before, there is a good argument for saying that governments should – rather than focusing their efforts on attempting to preserve the pre-coronavirus world in aspic, or exhorting people to return to pre-pandemic modes of work and consumption – be looking to improve the performance of the lockdown economy and to facilitate, rather than hold back, the changes to the economy and to public life brought about by the coronavirus.

The downside to that approach is that it will result in a large and painful economic disruption – one that you can really only fix by increasing the generosity and scope of Universal Credit (UC), which Sunak has opted not to do. The ban on rental evictions in England and Wales that was introduced at the start of the crisis has ended, and the small increase in UC’s generosity is set to come to an abrupt end in April. British workers face an unlovely cocktail of policy: on the one hand, they are going to lose jobs and pay, while being left to the mercies of a creaking and patchy safety net.

The underlying cause of the problem is that the Conservative government as a whole can’t decide if it wants to live through, or live with the novel coronavirus. As a result, Sunak has handed out the best part of £2bn to theatres and arts institutions whose workers are at risk of being laid off, the government has exhorted people to return to offices to support jobs that will be curtailed or outright lost. Plus, having spent £500m in August to encourage people to return to restaurants and city centres, the industries that support them – theatres, concert venues and the like – are now being given a package of support that is predicated on the idea they are, at least in the short-term, a casualty of the pandemic.

That confusion at the heart of government means that the government is spending money putting businesses in cryogenic suspension one month and then turning off the life support the next, and will make the autumn much more painful for the British people than it needs to be. It may well be politically painful for Sunak, too.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

Why Scottish Home Rule is no longer a viable alternative to independence

The “third way” of Scottish Home Rule would not have prevented Brexit or the Iraq War.


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The phrase Home Rule is freighted with historical connotations. One instantly thinks of Ireland and Gladstone, of Charles Stewart Parnell and Kitty O’Shea, of unionist intransigence and the Easter Rising and all that followed, even up to the Good Friday Agreement and today’s wretched Brexit zugzwang.

Home Rule plays large in the Scottish political imagination too. If it lacks association with revolutionary violence and star-crossed lovers, it still occupies a romantic place in the story of the nation’s struggle towards self-determination.

This is elegantly captured in a new book, Scottish Home Rule – The Answer to Scotland’s Constitutional Question, by Ben Thomson, a businessman and campaigner (Thomson also founded Reform Scotland, the think tank that I run). Thomson’s argument, as is clear from his subtitle, is that there is a third way between the status quo and full independence that could deliver a sustainable settlement.

Home Rule was for a long time the dominant preference among constitutional activists and scholars. The Scottish Home Rule Association was founded in 1886, and involved both Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald, as well as Robert Cunninghame Graham, who in 1934 would become the first president of the Scottish National Party.

The association’s demands and language were of their time: “to maintain integrity of the empire, secure a Scottish legislature for purely Scottish matters, maintain Scotland’s position within the Imperial Parliament and foster national sentiment”. But its main objective, plainly spoken, could easily come from the mouths of Nicola Sturgeon or perhaps even Gordon Brown: “the right of the Scottish people to manage their own affairs”, because “the Scottish people know their own business best”. Growing momentum behind the proposal was knocked on the head by the First World War and the collapse of the Liberal Party.

Over the years the meaning of Home Rule has become rather fuzzy, and loose, ill-defined phrases such as “devo max” and “devo plus” have hardly helped. All the parties have advocated some form of devolution at some point. John Buchan, the Scottish Unionist MP and author, stated in 1932 that “every Scotsman should be a Scottish Nationalist”, and in 1968 Edward Heath’s Declaration of Perth committed the Conservatives to a Scottish assembly. Labour dominated the Constitutional Convention that ultimately led Tony Blair to create the Scottish Parliament. The SNP has its origins in the Home Rule movement and in 2014 Alex Salmond urged David Cameron to offer the prospect as a third option on the independence referendum ballot paper, because he doubted the separatists could win outright.

But today Home Rule is the Cinderella policy of the constitutional debate. Scots are faced with a binary choice between the devolved parliament, perhaps with a few more powers, and independence. With polls showing support for independence above 50 per cent, Sturgeon is unlikely to ape her predecessor in asking for a third option in a second referendum – the odds of success have changed in the SNP’s favour.

Thomson insists, however, that we think again. An important difference between Home Rule and devolution, he argues, is that under the former sovereignty would be split between London and Edinburgh. At present, Holyrood is an instrument of Westminster and sovereignty rests legally in the south. This would change to a federal arrangement, backed by a written constitution, and “mutual respect” between the parliaments. Scotland would take control of all domestic powers, leaving Westminster with only those necessary for the maintenance of the Union, such as monetary policy, foreign policy and defence.

Home Rule is preferable to full independence, says Thomson, because it retains access to the UK market, where Scotland does 60 per cent of its trade, and avoids difficult and possibly damaging decisions about currency, debt and the euro. It allows Scots to keep the international clout that comes with UK membership.

Holyrood would be responsible for raising all that it spends, bringing greater fiscal discipline and seriousness, and the Barnett Formula would be replaced by a UK-wide Social Cohesion Fund, which redistributed resources according to need. It all might be a precursor to a fully federal UK.

If this all sounds too good to be true, then that’s probably because it is. There are a number of problems with Thomson’s proposals, not least that none of the main parties seems keen to adopt them. But beyond this, the case for independence has moved on to territory that Home Rule would not address.

For example, Home Rule would not have stopped Brexit. England’s scale in relation to the other nations of the UK meant that even though Scotland voted comprehensively to remain in the EU, a narrow majority south of the border for Leave was enough to carry the day. Scotland’s economy and international associations would still be subject to the consequences of English decisions, whether fiscal policy was fully devolved or not.

Foreign policy is another issue. The 2003 Iraq War was responsible for pushing a fair number of Scottish leftists towards support for independence. Again, Home Rule would not prevent Scotland from having to take part in unpopular conflicts.

Further, the sense that Boris Johnson’s government has an over-inflated view of the UK’s global importance, that its values are not shared by a majority of Scots, when Northern Ireland is being treated as so much chattel, and that ministers only pay lip-service to consultation, is driving the current rise in support for independence. This goes beyond domestic policy, into areas of identity, integrity and self-respect that are harder to capture in public policy.

Thomson’s book is worth reading, both as a history lesson and as a well-argued, thorough case for modern Scotland to take an alternative path. But it’s ultimately difficult to avoid the conclusion that we are now on another track, and that Home Rule, like Parnell and Hardie, has had its day.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

How Keir Starmer’s comments highlight a looming problem for the Union

On Scotland's right to another referendum, the Labour leader is not so different from his predecessor.

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In the event of an outright SNP victory in the Scottish parliamentary elections next year, Nicola Sturgeon and her party will have a mandate for a second independence referendum, Keir Starmer has told Sky's Beth Rigby

In a way, Starmer's statement is something that didn't need saying: the only route by which Labour could prevent a second independence referendum would be to win a majority, either in Holyrood, which would mean the request for a second independence vote would never be sent, or in Westminster, where he would have the freedom to deny that request. It is simply a fact that, in the eventuality that the SNP regains its majority, the party will have a mandate to seek a second independence referendum. 

Such a statement, made now, is designed not to answer an intellectual question but to ask a tactical one: does a unionist government in Westminster believe it can win another referendum, in these circumstances, with this Conservative government, against this SNP government? Do unionist campaigners think they are better served by having the fight now, or having it later?

This question is also moral: are you willing to ignore repeated elections in which the pro-independence party wins a majority of the seats it contests? Many people wrongly interpreted Jeremy Corbyn's squeamishness on that issue as a secret passion for Scottish independence, when the reality was that he simply found the prospect of ignoring the likely result of the 2021 Scottish election painful. And for all that this Labour leader is a departure from some aspects of the party’s recent past, he retains the same outlook on the Scottish question. So while Starmer may have described another Scottish independence as being “about the last thing that we need”, avoiding one by ignoring the result of next year's election is a price that he isn't willing to pay.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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